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Emotional Pain Doesn’t Justify Changing the Religion

“Every trial that happens to you in life is doing two things: pointing you to who your Lord is, and bringing to surface who your ‘lord’ is in your heart. And everything you say or do thereafter is either a testimony for you or against you—in preparation to expose to you one last time the spiritual state of your soul. In this, some of us are worshipping our Lord, and some of us are worshipping something (or someone) else entirely.”

—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah

Once when I was around eighteen years old, I went to visit the home of one of my brothers. He and his wife had invited me over to watch a movie and spend the night. While watching the movie, I began to feel nauseated and lightheaded, and I felt the beginning of a headache. Overcome with dread, I immediately realized that I’d likely be battling a full-blown migraine though the entire night and next day. I regularly suffered from the type of migraines that persisted for days at a time, and often they didn’t respond to medication.  

Head pounding, I sat on the floor of my brother’s living room looking at the television screen but feeling suddenly disinterested in the plot of the movie. I contemplated leaving the room. I took one look at my brother then decided against it. He was glancing back and forth between me and the television screen with that familiar look of excitement in his eyes as he pointed out how I should pay attention to this and that. He had told me about this movie earlier and insisted that I watch it because of the depth and complexity of the plot. He knew I liked thought-provoking movies and books, and he’d assured me that this particular movie was one I’d like.

Usually after I watched a movie my brother recommended or read a book he’d suggested, he and I would discuss it in depth. I knew he was planning the same for tonight. I myself generally looked forward to these discussions, but I feared I wouldn’t even be able to make it through the movie. But I pushed myself, not wanting to ruin the relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere.

When the movie ended, I exhaled in relief, but my head was pounding worse than before. My vision began to blur, and I found it difficult to stand upright without feeling like I would pass out. I found my way to the couch and collapsed on it, staring up at the ceiling, trying to be patient through the pain. Concerned, my brother walked over to me and asked if I was all right. I told him that I had a migraine and really just wanted to rest.

“You should go to sleep,” he told me, concern in his voice.

“I can’t,” I said, exhausted as I met his gaze. “I haven’t prayed ‘Ishaa yet.”

There was a pained expression on his face as he looked at me. It was as if he were feeling my pain himself. “Ruby, get your rest,” he told me, empathy in his tone. “You’re obviously not well. And Allah knows that. You don’t have to pray when you’re sick. Allah doesn’t put that kind of burden on us.”

His words comforted me, and for a fleeting moment, my heart felt at ease realizing I didn’t have to worry about praying after all. I hadn’t yet studied any of the Islamic rules surrounding Salaah, but deep inside me, I felt my soul in unrest. It just didn’t feel right to go to sleep without praying, no matter how terribly I felt.

“But I sat through that movie even though I was sick,” I said, my voice strained in self-rebuke. “How can I justify not pushing myself through Salaah?”

My brother’s expression conveyed a mixture of disagreement and understanding, as he hated to see me putting unnecessary stress on myself, but he also understood my point. He said nothing in response and walked away and quietly prepared the prayer mat for me.

It Hurts To See Loved Ones Suffering

It’s been nearly twenty-five years since that incident at my brother’s house, and both he and I have grown spiritually since then. He no longer believes that you can skip prayer when you’re unwell, and neither do I. But I’ve never forgotten that fleeting moment as I lay on the couch, my heart being pulled toward sleep instead of prayer, while my brother reassured me that Allah didn’t require me to pray in that state.

I think on this moment often because so often when we are inclined to leave off spiritual requirements, it isn’t due to a desire to disobey Allah and change the teachings of His Book or prophetic Wisdom. It’s due to a desire to make life easier for ourselves and those we care about. It is human nature to feel hurt when our loved ones feel hurt, and our natural response to this is to seek to lighten their burden or remove their pain.

By Allah’s Mercy, He has given us a complete and perfect guideline of how to implement ease and mercy into our lives such that our burdens are lightened significantly. In the Qur’an, Allah says what has been translated to mean, “Allah does not intend to place you in difficulty, but He intends to purify you and complete His favor upon you that you may be grateful” (Al-Maa’idah, 5:6)

It is profound that this part of the ayah is being discussed in the context of the obligation of Salaah and the permission to do tayammum (ablution with clean earth) if we cannot find any water for wudhoo’. From the Hikmah (Wisdom) that Allah revealed to Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam), we also learn of the permission to sit while praying, to combine Dhuhr and Asr, and Maghrib and ‘Ishaa in certain circumstances. This shows us that although formal prayer is always obligatory upon the believers (except in the case of menstruation and postpartum bleeding), even when we are unwell, this obligation is not intended as a burden, but as a spiritual purification for our own souls.

In emphasizing the inherent mercy and ease of the faith itself, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The religion is very easy, so whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not go to extremes. But strive to be near perfection, and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded. And gain strength by worshipping in the mornings, the afternoons, and during the last hours of the nights” (Bukhari).

Our Hearts Need Fixing

Given the inherent mercy of Islam itself, when we wish to lighten the burdens on ourselves and our loved ones, we should look to the teachings of our merciful faith itself to guide our choices and the advice we give others. While some requirements of this merciful life path will certainly feel burdensome at times, this is not due to the difficulty of the faith, but to the ailing state of our hearts and souls. Once our hearts have khushoo’ (sincere and humble submissiveness), the requirements of the religion begin to feel like the mercy and blessing they are. However, this in itself is a jihaad-ul-nafs (internal battle of the self against the self) and a daily struggle for the soul.

Allah says, “And seek help in patience and As-Salaah (the prayer), and truly it is extremely heavy and hard except for Al-Khaashi’oon (the humbly submissive)” (Al-Baqarah, 2:45)

In this ayah we learn that when we are in any sort of difficulty, we seek help through two means: sabr (patience and perseverance upon that which nourishes the soul) and Salaah. If we find this path of sabr and Salaah extremely difficult, then we should turn to Allah to ask Him to purify our hearts and fill them with khushoo’—as we continue to have patience and establish the prayer throughout this process.

We Are Hasty and Impatient

It is our unfortunate reality as human beings that we are hasty and impatient in getting what we want, until we become frustrated and impatient with our Creator Himself (may Allah protect us and forgive us). Allah says, “Man was created of haste. I will show you My signs, so do not impatiently urge Me” (Al-Anbiyaa’, 21:37).

In this impatience and haste, the hearts of some human beings have become so sick that they seek to change the rules of religion and then claim that it is from Allah. In the Qur’an, Allah discusses this when He says, “So woe to those who write the ‘scripture’ with their own hands, then say, ‘This is from Allah,’ in order to exchange it for a small price. Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn” (AlBaqarah, 2:79).

When we knowingly following those who do this, we fall into kufr (disbelief) ourselves. This disbelief can happen when an imam, sheikh or spiritual teacher forbids what Allah has allowed or permits what Allah has forbidden, and we knowingly following him in this.

Allah says what has been translated to mean, “They have taken their rabbis and monks as lords besides Allah” (At-Tawbah, 9:31). When ‘Adee ibn Haatim, a Companion who’d converted to Islam from Christianity, heard this ayah, he said, “We didn’t worship them.” The Prophet, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, responded, “Did they not make haraam (forbidden) what Allah had made halaal (permissible) and you made it haraam [too]? And did they not make halaal what Allah had made haraam, and you made it halaal [too]?” ‘Adee replied, “Certainly.” The Prophet, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, said, “That was how you worshipped them” (Al-Tirmidhi).

One of the areas in which we find the changing of the religion quite rampant today due to our hastiness and impatience in getting what we want, is in Allah’s merciful guidance He has given us in marriage. For so many of us, we accept wholeheartedly the mercy of Allah in our own lives when it comes to the freedom of choice in marriage (and divorce), but we seek to block this same mercy in other believers’ lives when we fear we’ll face emotional pain due to their halaal choices.

The Trial of Marriage

Today, it is unfortunate that we find even those who are considered imams, sheikhs, and scholars, seeking to change the religion to make life “easier” for others in marriage. Some of these innovated teachings include the rejection of Allah’s definition of marriage itself (especially where polygyny is concerned); the denial of the validity of certain marriages; and the introduction of extraneous conditions before a marriage is considered “valid.”  

While Allah has included in His perfect guidance the right of each individual to place certain conditions on their own experience with marriage (even beyond what is required); we need to understand that our own personal preferences and limitations for our own lives cannot be made into general rules that others are obligated to adhere to, even if they happen to be our own spouses or children.

When we begin to deny the validity of others’ marriages and make new rules regarding who can marry whom, then we are no longer in the realm of personal preference. Rather we are in the realm of introducing a new deen (religion; way of life). This is especially the case if we openly declare that someone is not really a husband or wife or that they are living in sin, just because they’ve entered into a marriage that we personally dislike yet fulfills the conditions of a nikaah (Islamic marriage) in front of Allah.

One of the cases in which we find a widespread social acceptance amongst Muslims for changing the religion and denying the validity of others’ marriage is when a man and woman have entered into polygyny. In this, many Muslims do not stay within the bounds of Islamic guidance by outlining our own personal limitations in what we are willing to live with. Rather we go a step further and claim that another person’s marriage is invalid if we ourselves don’t agree with it. Even when we are reminded that part of Allah’s mercy includes the option of divorce if we sincerely cannot handle a certain situation, we claim that this option itself is a dhulm (wrongdoing). We claim that this dhulm is “home-wrecking” on the part of the person seeking polygyny, or on the part of the person reminding us that divorce is an option.

In other words, when it comes to our own marriage, we believe we should never be faced with emotional pain and the natural trials of adult life, wherein we have to make difficult choices that respect both our personal limitations and others’ halaal freedom of choice. Thus, we frantically seek out “fatwas” and new Islamic rules that forbid what Allah has made lawful, and that slander believers who are benefiting from the same merciful free choice that we enjoy in our own lives.

Some Muslims even go so far as to use the name of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and the marriage of his beloved daughter Fatimah to Ali (may Allah be pleased with them) to justify forbidding what Allah has allowed, and slandering believers who live in or seek polygyny.

Self-Accountability: The Lesson from Ali and Fatimah

In Islam we find that self-accountability is at the heart of everything we are taught about our lives and souls. As such, topics like who should (or should not) marry whom or what type of marriage (monogamy or polygyny) someone should (or should not) be in is largely centered around what is best for the lives and souls of those involved. Even when we ourselves are directly involved because it is our marriage, Islam points us to soul-care and self-accountability instead of seeking to control our spouse’s life and choices.

Even in the famous story of Fatimah and Ali (may Allah be pleased with them), we find the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) pointing both Fatimah and Ali to soul-care and self-accountability, instead of controlling the other person’s life and choices. Thus, it is quite ironic that this story is often used to justify changing the rules of Islam itself (i.e. to forbid what Allah made lawful regarding plural marriage).

In truth, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) did not ask Ali to make a firm commitment to never marry in polygamy, but to rather divorce his daughter Fatimah if he chose to marry the daughter of Abu Jahl, as it was a marriage choice that Fatimah found very difficult to accept.

Fatimah could not fathom how the daughter of the Messenger of Allah and the daughter of the greatest enemy to Islam could be in a single household. The emotional pain caused her so much distress that her father and wali—Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)—intervened on her behalf. It was not polygamy itself that burdened her, but the specific woman whom her husband, Ali, had chosen to join their household.

The following hadith on this incident was narrated by Al-Miswar bin Makhrama (may Allah be pleased with him): “I heard Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) who was on the pulpit saying, ‘Banu Hisham bin Al-Mughira have requested me to allow them to marry their daughter to `Ali bin Abu Talib, but I don’t give permission, and will not give permission unless `Ali bin Abi Talib divorces my daughter in order to marry their daughter, because Fatimah is a part of my body, and I hate what she hates to see, and what hurts her, hurts me” (Sahih Bukhari 5230. Also narrated in Muslim 2449; Abu Dawood 2071; Al-Tirmidhi 3868; and others).

This declaration was not intended to forbid two people who were halaal for each other from getting married, and it was not intended to introduce a ruling that permitted the prohibition of polygyny, as no Prophet would ever seek to forbid what Allah made lawful. In making this point crystal clear, the Prophet (peace and blessings be on him) himself emphasized to the people: “I do not make a legal thing illegal, nor do I make an illegal thing legal, but by Allah, the daughter of Allah’s Messenger and the daughter of the enemy of Allah, (Abu Jahl) can never get together [as the wives of one man] (Sahih Al-Bukhari 3110).”

In other words, the story of Fatimah and Ali was a story of self-accountability, in which a woman (with the support of her father and wali), owned her own personal limitations and emotional pain, and was willing to be granted a divorce to free her husband to do what was halaal for him. It was not a story in which she insisted that her husband carry her emotional burdens and personal limitations on her behalf. Moreover, the option of divorce was presented as a permissible and justifiable alternative in their circumstance, and not as a sin or as a sign of “home wrecking” on the part of Ali or the woman he desired to marry.

Here we find a message of self-accountability to both men and women: To men, we find a clear message that their wives cannot be compelled to live in a type of marriage that causes them undue distress and emotional pain, even if that marriage is blessed and halaal for him. Thus, he should respect her right to divorce and should not force her to remain married to him. Furthermore, the woman should not be slandered, accused of sinfulness, and warned that she won’t smell the scent of Paradise just because a halaal marital circumstance is too emotionally difficult for her.

To women, we find a clear message that we can only control our own lives and choices, not our husband’s. In other words, we have full rights to the personal limitations of our emotional pain, such that we can present to our husbands a choice to either honor those limitations or set us free. However, we do not have the right to say that two people who are halaal for each other can never be married, or that their marriage is invalid if they do marry. But we can say that we are not willing to be part of a certain type of marriage, or to be joined in marriage with a certain person.

In a sentence, both men and women have full rights to halaal marital choices and personal limitations regarding what they are willing to live with, but neither men nor women have the right to control others’ lives or change the deen of Allah.

What If I’ve Been Wronged?

In front of Allah, dhulm (wrongdoing) is not a light matter, and anyone who has transgressed the rights of someone else, especially their spouse, should repent immediately and seek to right that wrong. If we ourselves are hurting due to the dhulm of our spouse, we should understand all of our rights in this regard, especially our right to draw clear limits and conditions regarding what we are willing to live with, and our right to divorce if our husband or wife does not fulfill these conditions.

At the same time, it is important to remember that we ourselves have an obligation to our Creator and our own souls at all times, even when we are in the midst of emotional pain and turmoil due to a dhulm we have suffered (whether due to the actions of our spouse or someone else). In this, here are three points to keep in mind:

  1. No matter what anyone says otherwise, when we have been wronged, we are under no obligation in front of Allah to excuse or forgive the dhulm we have suffered. I discuss this point in detail in my book, The Abuse of Forgiveness: Manipulation and Harm in the Name of Emotional Healing.
  2. In seeking to heal from what we have suffered, we cannot force someone to do anything specific to rectify what they have done. The most we can do is make clear to them our own demands and limits, and if they are unwilling to respect them, we have the right to remove ourselves from the relationship or any further interactions with them. Though we can certainly argue that they should do what we demand, we have no divine authority to force them to.
  3. Someone wronging or betraying us doesn’t cancel out all their rights as a fellow human being or believer. Allah is their Lord, just as He is yours. Just like you can ask Allah to forgive you for all the sins and wrongs you have done, they too can ask the same from Al-Ghaffaar (The Ever-Forgiving).

Regarding this last point: Yes, you can certainly demand your rights from the wrongdoer in this world, and even take from their good deeds on the Day of Judgment. However, even if they suffer in this world and in the Hereafter for what they’ve done to you, it is only kufr (disbelief) that cancels out all good in a person. Yet even disbelievers have the basic rights of a human being in this world. And marrying any person who is not forbidden to you is one of the rights that all humans have, whether righteous or sinful, or believer or disbeliever.

Nevertheless, just because a wrongdoer maintains certain human rights on earth, this doesn’t mean that they are safe from Allah on the Day of Judgment.

Islam Teaches Self-Honesty, Even in Loss

What all of this means is that everyone of us, male and female, must take personal responsibility for what our own limits and demands, as well as choices and preferences, will mean for us in life—even if that means losing a relationship (or a type of relationship) with someone we love.

For some of us, this self-accountability would mean accepting that divorce is our best option if the person we are married to has found something that is best for their life and soul but is harmful for ours. For others, this self-accountability would mean accepting that we will need to reframe what we are willing to live with if we are to remain married to the person we love. But for all of us, this self-accountability would mean being honest with ourselves and our Lord.

This level of honesty requires a heart striving for spiritual sincerity and emotional maturity, such that we never seek to control a soul other than our own—no matter how much we think they are responsible for our happiness and healing our emotional pain. It would also mean never trying to change the rules of Islam to force a certain result in our personal life, even if we’ve been wronged.

In seeking to protect our souls from harm and to make the best decision for our lives and souls, here is something else that we should keep in mind: Just because something is allowed for us in Islam doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s something we should do in our personal circumstance. At the same time, just because we personally feel someone should or should not do something in their personal circumstance (even if it’s our own spouse), this doesn’t necessarily mean this is what they should do in front of Allah.

In the end, all we can do is draw our own boundaries regarding what we are willing to live with and hope and pray that the one we love will continue to join us on that journey.

We Need No Protection from Allah’s Guidance

Any time someone seeks to change the rules of Allah to offer some benefit to you in this world, they are effectively saying to you, “I am protecting you from the harms that will befall you if you submit to the guidance of Allah.” I wrote this note in my journal upon witnessing the widespread occurrence of spiritual leaders seeking to change the religion due to wanting to relieve people from emotional pain.

When we find imams, sheikhs and spiritual teachers changing the rules of Islam so as to make life easier for others, what they are essentially telling us is that we need to be protected from the “harm” of Allah’s guidance (and Allah’s refuge is sought). In these instances, what we need to teach our hearts is that we do not need protection from our Creator. Rather we need protection from those who are putting themselves and their teachings in place of our Creator.

Even when these men (and women) imagine they are making life less painful for us, they are merely bringing pain and difficulty into our lives from a different direction (which is ultimately more severe if it harms our emaan) because there is no escaping pain and suffering in life. This is the case whether a person is a believer or a disbeliever, or whether the person is righteous or sinful.

Allah says, “If a wound should touch you, there has already touched the [opposing] people a wound similar to it. And these days [of varying conditions] We alternate among the people so that Allah may make evident those who believe and [may] take to Himself from among you martyrs, and Allah does not like the wrongdoers” (Ali ‘Imraan, 3:140).

Allah also says, “And if Allah should touch you with adversity, there is no remover of it except Him; and if He intends for you good, then there is no repeller of His bounty. He causes it to reach whom He wills of His servants. And He is the Forgiving, the Merciful” (Yunus, 10:107).

Therefore, to imagine that anyone has the ability to protect us from emotional pain and suffering is a sign of deep ignorance and misguidance. When this imagination reaches the level of changing the religion to meet this goal, then this falls into the realm of kufr (disbelief).

Inherent in emaan (faith; authentic spirituality) is the belief in Allah’s qadar (divine decree; predestination), which includes both the good and the evil we experience in this world. This is the sixth pillar of emaan itself.

When we are not in the practice of prioritizing our Creator and our souls before everything else, including our emotional pain, we can forget the very meaning of emaan, especially when we are facing a difficult trial. It is in this mental space of spiritual neglect that we can read a story pointing to self-accountability (like that of Fatimah and Ali) and draw a conclusion that points to the exact opposite of what is being taught. Thus, we begin to justify controlling another person and even forbidding what Allah made lawful. Yet the entire lesson in every story in the Qur’an and Sunnah is pointing us to our own soul-care and self-accountability—and humbly accepting Allah’s qadar, even when we experience something emotionally painful as a result.

Guard the Pathways of Your Heart

Due to the seriousness of the sin of changing the religion, we need to be extra cautious in guarding our hearts from listening to any teaching about our faith that does not directly align with what Allah revealed in the Book or prophetic Wisdom. In guarding our hearts, we need to understand that we are most in danger of falling into this destructive sin when what we are hearing appeals to our deepest desires, frustrations, and unhealed emotional wounds—whether it’s due to our laziness in consistently establishing Salaah, or it’s due to our hurt feelings in marriage when we fear our husband or wife will make a halaal choice that will cause us pain.

In this moment, our ailing hearts make us emotionally and spiritually weak such that we are willing to grasp on to anything that tells us what we want to hear, even if it means knowingly supporting teachings that contradict the guidance of Allah. Facing this temptation in our weakest and most vulnerable moments is the very essence of a spiritual trial. When we are faced with personal trials like this, we should bear in mind that spiritual trials of this nature are part of Allah’s qadar in testing the believing soul, so as to make plain those whose claim of emaan is true, and whose claim is merely ghuroor (self-deception).

In fact, there are people whom Allah places in our lives for the sole purpose of being a fitnah (a tremendous trial) for us so that we will learn sabr (patience and steadfastness in submitting to Him). These people could be our very own husbands, wives, children, and loved ones. Allah says what has been translated to mean, “And We have made some of you as a trial (fitnah) for others. Will you have patience?” (Al-Furqaan, 25:20).

In warning myself against failing this inevitable trial that each believing soul will face, I wrote this note in my journal: Pay attention to those things that appeal most to your heart. They could be the very pathway Shaytaan is using as an opening to help you destroy your soul.

Cover of The Abuse of Forgiveness, a man's dirty hands, handcuffed and holding two flowers
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Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.