In the beginning, it all seems necessary, and even praiseworthy. The questions, the doubts, the paranoia…and the endless phone calls, emails, and inquiries to the local (or overseas) scholar, imam, or sheikh.
Oh my God, am I allowed to wear a colored hijab?
Is the ringer on my phone a musical instrument of Shaytaan?
I work in a mixed environment. Should I quit?
Must I scribble out the faces on the cereal box?
Is wearing jeans imitating the disbelievers?
I like reading self-help books. Is this okay?
My parents aren’t Muslim. Can I visit them over the holidays?
What is OCD?
In the field of psychology, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is an anxiety disorder characterized by the obsessive “need” to engage in repetitive, compulsive behavior. Sufferers are often fixated on the tiniest of details, convinced that the slightest oversight or mistake is indicative of carelessness or serious personal fault, or that it will result in some personal disaster or great loss. A common example is a person so obsessed with orderliness and cleanliness that not a single book or pencil can ever be out of its “proper” place, or that every single possible germ in the room or on the body must be obliterated immediately and repeatedly—or else the room will turn to shambles and the furniture will infect others with disease, or the body will suffer some horrible health-related catastrophe.
For the purpose of this blog, I use the term religious OCD to refer to the obsession with doing every single thing perfectly right in front of God to such an extent that the mere possibility of falling into error or sin paralyzes a person into inactivity, anxiety, and stress—and the person imagines that the slightest misstep, even if unintentional, will result in God punishing them severely in this life and in the Hereafter.
Root Causes: Obsessive Need to Be Right and Lack of Faith
Other than the possibility of a person suffering a diagnosable mental illness, there is at the root of religious OCD two salient characteristics: a compulsive need to be right, and a general lack of faith in Allah’s mercy. This compulsiveness is quite different from sincere determination to obey Allah and avoid sin; just like the obsession to obliterate all possible germs in the room or on the body is significantly different from a consistent healthy lifestyle of cleanliness and good hygiene.
Whereas Islam emphasizes remaining on the right path despite inevitable sin and human error, religious OCD emphasizes being right at all times, as sin and error are viewed as avoidable in every instance. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) taught, “All of the children of Adam sin, but the best of those who sin are those who constantly repent” (Bukhari).
“Say, O My slaves who have wronged their souls! Despair not of the mercy of Allah. Verily, Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”
He also tells us in a Qudsi hadith, “O child of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O child of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O child of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it” (Al-Tirmidhi and Ahmad, authenticated by Al-Albani).
Avoid Doubtful Matters, the Creed of Religious OCD
The creed of Islam is rooted in belief in Allah and following the Sunnah of His Messenger, peace be upon him. In practical reality, this means striving our level best to obey Allah through doing what He has made obligatory and staying away from what He has forbidden. However, there are times when we are not sure whether something falls into the category of permissibility or prohibition. During these times, we should leave alone that which incites doubt in favor of that which does not incite doubt.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Leave that which makes you doubt for that which does not make you doubt. Verily, truth is tranquility and falsehood is doubt” (Sunan al-Tirmidhi and Sunan al-Nasaai, saheeh).
For those suffering from religious OCD, following what is believed to be truth does not inspire tranquility and internal peace; rather it incites only more doubt, confusion, and anxiety. Ultimately, these people will likely become frustrated with practicing Islam itself, as anything that cannot be fit neatly into the category of “permissible” or “forbidden” is automatically cast into the category of “doubtful matters” and thus must be avoided, a mental process that will naturally overwhelm the mind or body.
The smallest issues are blown out of proportion in the person’s mind, and major issues, ironically, cease to be the primary focus. This is because, ultimately, the foundational creed of a person suffering from religious OCD is “avoid doubtful matters” instead of “obey Allah.” As a result, they overburden themselves by focusing obsessively on the tiniest issues such that they lose touch with the essence of Islam itself.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “The Religion is easy. So whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not go to extremes, rather strive to be near perfection. Receive good tidings that you will be rewarded, and gain strength by offering the prayers in the mornings, afternoons, and during the last hours of the nights” (Bukhari).
Teaching Religious OCD Instead of Islam
While religious OCD (or “scrupulosity” as it is called in psychology) can certainly occur due to a genuine underlying mental illness, many Islamic classes today actually train students to become hyper-focused on the mere possibility of sin or error instead of the promise of Allah’s mercy and forgiveness. For this reason, some practicing Muslims report having more faith in Allah’s mercy before studying Islam formally in classes. And here I say “practicing Muslims” to emphasize that these believers were already fulfilling the five pillars of Islam and believing in the six pillars of emaan prior to becoming students of books in classes.
Personally, I know many Muslims who actually left practicing Islam after previously being deeply involved in formal Islamic studies. I myself almost left Islam after these studies, as I discuss in my book I Almost Left Islam: How I Reclaimed My Faith.
In these classes, we are taught two things that are almost sure to cause both mental and spiritual exhaustion in the long run:
- You don’t have the right to your own mind, life and soul (and thus should blindly trust scholars to do your thinking, plan your life, and dictate your spiritual affairs on your behalf)
- Regarding all worldly matters, especially those involving disagreement amongst the scholars, avoid what is doubtful (i.e. Always follow the strictest opinion).
Consequently, we leave these classes feeling completely ignorant of our religion and obligated to make our lives extremely difficult, lest we risk going to Hellfire because we accidentally did something wrong when we should have just “stayed away from doubtful.”
Ramadan and Religious OCD
Unfortunately, what happens as a result of all of this training in religious OCD is that even when the month of mercy arrives, many of us feel unable to fully participate because “fully participating” means becoming super human—or super Muslim. We even forget that Ramadan is about earning Allah’s mercy and forgiveness, not about never doing anything to need either.
In our classes, in addition to having been taught that we are helpless, ignorant laypeople incapable of worshipping Allah without a spiritual teacher by our side—and that practically everything we enjoy of this world is “doubtful”—we constantly learn about “super Muslims” of the past who, for all intents and purposes, committed no sins and whose greatest joys in life were praying and reading Qur’an all night every night without fail. We also hear of these same “super Muslims” greeting Ramadan by shutting themselves off from the world around them and spending the entire month in seclusion as they engage in even more praying and reading Qur’an than they normally did.
And while these “super Muslim” stories are indeed amazing and at times tear-jerking in their spiritual beauty, they do very little to encourage the average Muslim to worship Allah and trust that He loves us just as much as (if not more than) many “super Muslims.”
So as we greet Ramadan, we often feel like we don’t even have the right to participate, lest we corrupt the sanctity of the “super Muslim month” or lest we disrespect our faith and Lord with our mind-wandering prayers, grumpy moods, and miniscule Qur’an reading, which we barely fit into our busy, hectic schedules of work, school, parenting, and just living life.
How Do I Benefit from Ramadan As a “Normal Muslim”?
The first thing we need to do in order to benefit from Ramadan as a “normal Muslim” is to focus on what Allah requires of us, then work from there. In other words, do what is obligatory (i.e. fast and pray our obligatory Salaah)—and then assess our own personal improvement needs, instead of looking at “super Muslims” (of past and present) for advice.
For example, if you are in the habit of missing obligatory prayers, then focus on praying all five prayers in Ramadan. If you are in the habit of delaying obligatory prayers, then focus on praying on time. If you are in the habit of not opening the Qur’an throughout the year, then read something from the Qur’an each day, even if it’s only a small section or for a few minutes.
But whatever personal improvement steps you take, don’t imagine you’ll stop being human during Ramadan. As I reflected in my journal:
No matter what month it is, you’ll never stop being human and making mistakes. All humans sin…but the best are those who constantly repent. This is what our faith teaches. So remember this: Your success lies in never giving up the struggle, not in having nothing to struggle against.
So repent, O child of Adam. The gates of Paradise are open for you—should you sincerely desire to enter.
Should I Abandon “Doubtful Matters” in Ramadan?
One of the most distressing things about Ramadan for the “normal Muslim” trained in religious OCD and emulating “super Muslims” is the conflicting feelings surrounding the “requirement” to abandon all worldly matters that we usually enjoy throughout the year. Whether it is reading a fiction book, watching a favored television show, playing video games, going to the movies, listening to music, or even just relaxing at the pool or park, we often feel obligated to give all of this up in Ramadan if we are going to earn Allah’s mercy and forgiveness.
Naturally, if you know something is definitely haraam (or if you are genuinely convinced that it is forbidden despite legitimate disagreement amongst the scholars), then no matter what month it is, you should strive to stay away from it and repent whenever you slip up or indulge in it. However, when it comes to things typically labeled “doubtful” in Islam, the best course of action is often more confusing than clear.
But before discussing whether or not you should abandon “doubtful matters” in Ramadan, it’s important to know whether or not you’re exaggerating what “doubtful” actually means. Unfortunately, those of us who went to classes that train us to be “super Muslims” tend to label nearly everything of this world as “doubtful” if it does not have an overtly religious purpose. Furthermore, we were taught that anything that has legitimate disagreement amongst the scholars is automatically “doubtful” in Islam, particularly if you favor the lenient view over the stricter one. Thus, we often feel forced to treat as haraam something that we may or may not be convinced actually is.
What Are “Doubtful Matters” in Islam?
As I mentioned in my blog, Walking Guilty, the Weight of Doubt and Sin, it is well known that religion is defined by core beliefs and specific acts of worship. Hence, our greatest concern for religious safety must be in protecting our beliefs and worship. Worldly affairs, as a general rule, are not religious matters. Thus, humans are free to enjoy and benefit from anything of this world that they wish—unless Allah has expressly forbidden it (i.e. eating pork, drinking alcohol, or engaging in any sexual intimacy outside the God-sanctioned union between a man and a woman).
In other words, all matters of belief and worship have the general principle of prohibition unless there is clear proof for them in the Qur’an and Sunnah; and all matters related to our worldly life have the general principle of permissibility unless there is clear proof against them in the Qur’an and Sunnah.
Therefore, if you hear of a religious belief or mode of worship that incites doubt because you don’t know if it’s sanctioned in the Qur’an or the Sunnah, then you should stay away from it so that you can “leave that which makes you doubt.” However, if there is a worldly matter that you have no justifiable reason to doubt the permissibility of, then you should assume it is allowed until you have proof otherwise from the Qur’an or Sunnah.
You cannot live your entire life throwing every worldly issue into the category of “doubtful matters” just because you aren’t personally aware of its specific “ruling” in Islam. If you do, you’ll likely overburden yourself in the religion until you are paralyzed into inactivity, anxiety, and stress—and until you give up on practicing Islam altogether.
“But I’m So Confused!”
Perhaps, you’ve just become Muslim, or you’re studying the faith in depth for the first time, or you’re just trying to get the most out of Ramadan. Undoubtedly, during this period, there will be loads of confusion and questions that need clarification and answers. But what if getting answers and clarification leads to only more confusion?
It’s true that the more we learn, the more we realize how much we don’t know. But it’s not true that the more we learn, the more confused we become. Confusion is not the same as having healthy awareness of our limited knowledge.
In fact, for those endowed with true knowledge of the faith, awareness of their ignorance comes as a result of decreased religious confusion and the subsiding of crippling doubts. That is precisely why they are able to distinguish what they know from what they don’t know—and what they must know from what they don’t have to know.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, many Islamic classes are instilling in others deep religious confusion as opposed to religious clarity.
So What Should I Do?
Once there was a man who repeatedly asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) if Hajj was obligatory every year and the Prophet responded, “If I had said yes then it would have become obligatory upon you [to perform Hajj every year], and you would not have been able to do so. Do not ask me about that which I have left [unspecified], for verily the nations before you were destroyed by their excessive questioning and their disagreeing with their Prophets. So if I order you with something then do as much of it as you are able, and if I forbid you from something then keep away from it” (Muslim).
As I learned during my Islamic studies, the lesson we should gain from this hadith is profound, especially for those heavily influenced by the “super Muslim” and religious-OCD culture that is prevalent today: Do what you’re obligated to do, and beyond that, do what works best for your personal improvement and spiritual life without obsessing over what you should or should not do when there is no clear instruction about it in the Qur’an or Sunnah.
If you still find yourself distressed and confused, consult someone with a balanced understanding of both religious and worldly needs, then pray Istikhaarah before moving forward with any decision (even if you imagine it to be “safest” for your soul).
Prioritize Self-Care Over Self-Denial
Here’s what works best for me year round: For my beliefs and worship, I stay away from doubtful by sticking to what is clear in the Qur’an and Sunnah. In Ramadan in particular, I do what is reasonable and realistic for me regarding increasing my Quran and worship, and I engage in healthy self-denial by spending a bit more time in these spiritual activities at the expense of some worldly activities I’d normally engage in at that time.
However, when it comes to worldly matters that I usually enjoy throughout the year, I prioritize self-care over self-denial. In other words, to benefit most from Ramadan, I continue to do what I normally do (except what I leave off so that I can spend more time reading Qur’an and praying at home or in the masjid). I already know what unhealthy self-denial does to my mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, and I’m not interested in putting myself through that again.
Thus, if I’ve already read my extra Qur’an and prayed my extra prayers for the day (according to my own personal improvement list), I go on with my life and enjoy the worldly activities that I normally do. After weathering the spiritual crisis that almost took me out of Islam, I know now that even my spirituality benefits from the relaxation and peace I gain from permissible worldly enjoyments. So if I want to read a book, exercise to more than the sound of my own breathing, or to play a game I enjoy, I will, bi’idhnillaah. And I don’t give a second’s thought to what modern day “super Muslims” and religious-OCD cultures label as “doubtful” in my faith. Yes, there are definitely controversial worldly matters that I consider “doubtful” for my own soul and thus stay away from them. But this self-denial is based on my emotional and spiritual needs, not anyone else’s.
So if you want to gain the most from this blessed month—and have emaan in your heart for the long term—I suggest you do the same, instead of obsessing over how you too can become a “super Muslim.”
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