Islamic Perspective in Stress
by Shahid Athar, M.D.
While stress may be necessary for human survival, the excess of it certainly
affects our health and productivity. It is claimed that in the United States
nearly 20 million people suffer from stress in terms of attributing their
illness or symptoms to it. Stress related compensation cost nearly $200 million
per year. Loss of productivity and stress related illness directly or indirectly
amounts to $50 billion per year. Many corporations and individuals are spending
nearly $15 billion per year on stress management of their employees. (Newsweek
There is enough medical evidence to link stress to the causation of peptic ulcer
disease, hypertension, coronary artery disease and depression. In addition, many
common problems like tension headache, insomnia, impotency (in man), frigidity
(in women), are stress related to causation of diabetes, suppression of immune
system and development of cancer.
In our day to day life, stress affects peace at home, job performance at work,
grades in school and even our eating and mating behavior.
Warning Signs Of Stress
The earliest signs of stress are irritability, mood swings, difficulty in sleep, lack of concentration, abdominal distress, extreme sensitivity to
criticism, weight gain of weight loss, fear of failure, poor appetite, or
hunger, and increase dependence on tranquilizers or alcohol for sleep.
Conditions Which Cause Stress
Psychiatrists have identified some 50 stressors. In fact any change, good or
bad, is stressful. A change in job, or job description, in school, residence,
financial status, loss or gain of a family member or close friend, injury or
illness, national calamity or news of riots or violence all can be extremely
stressful. Muslims living in a non-Muslim society may acquire some additional
stress. These may include such factors as preserving their identity, practicing
Islam (i.e. in food matters or timing of prayer), defending Islam on a hostile
media and settling conflicts between family members: the spouse, parent /child,
and practicing / non practicing factions.
Who Are Prone to Stress
Although stress spares no one including children, certain professions get more
then their share. They include the sales person, the stock broker, the
secretary, the inner city school teacher, the air traffic controller, the
medical intern, the police officer and those handling complaint departments. It
is interesting to note that qualities like being ambitious, compulsive, high
achieving, productivity oriented are looked upon as signs of efficiency by the
employer, are also type A personality traits, so dangerous to our health. So the
art is to have these qualities, with a cool type B personality in order to live
happily and have a longer time.
Coping With Stress
Although we are all exposed to stress, why can some of us cope with it better
then others ? Is it the way we deal with the stressor, or the way we are built?
There is some evidence to suggest that some of us may be genetically predisposed
to depression, or have deficiency in the level of neurotransmitters, the mood
regulating hormones, or just do not produce enough adrenalin on demand.
A person's religious belief has an important bearing on his personality and his
outlook in life. By putting the trust in God, a believer minimizes the stress on
him by reducing his responsibility and power to control his failures.
Proven ways to handle stress as being practiced now range from meditation,
sleep, exercise, socialization, biofeedback, psychotherapy and tranquilizers. In
this article we are going to discuss how to deal with stress in the light of the
Qur'an and the Sunnah.
Psychologically the stress results from the following factors.
Fear of the unknown, and our inability to recognize, foresee and control it.
Loss of things, and people in our life dear to us, and our inability to
recover these losses or accept them.
Our inability to see through the future. In fact we might be more stressed if
we do see the future.
Conflicts between the mind, and the reality and our failure to accept the
reality (i.e. the phase of denial). It is the lack of the inner peace due to our
internal conflicts which leads to the external disturbances in our behavior and
affects our health.
Let us examine how the Qur'an deals with such situations. Our losses are a part
of trial for us:
"Be sure We will test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in
goods or lives, but give glad tidings to those who are steadfast, who say when
afflicted with calamity: To God we belong and to Him is our return. They are
those on whom (descend) blessings from God and mercy and they are the ones that
receive guidance." (Qur'an 2:155)
Whatever we are given is a gift from God. We are not their owners. Everything
belongs to God and returns to Him. So if we don't own these things why mourn
their loss or wax proud on receiving them.
Only God knows what our ultimate destiny is. We cannot peek into our future.
We do, however, have a limited free will; we are free to choose between good or
bad, to believe in God or not to believe in Him, but we have no control over
future not related to our ability to act in the present - whether my wife will
have a son or daughter, whether his / her eyes will be brown or black, or
whether I will have an accident tomorrow or not. Worrying over such things is of
Rejection of faith in the Qur'an is described as a disease, its cause being
arrogance and reluctance to accept truth.
"In their heart there is a disease and God has increased their disease and
grievous is their penalty because they lie to themselves". (Qur'an 2:10)
Thus when a man lies to himself, he creates an inner conflict - between his
heart and the mind. In order to contain that conflict, the mind sends signals to
glands for secretion of hormones like adrenalin which leads to rapid heart rate,
perspiration, tremor, the basis of a lie detector tests.
This conflict could be due to "small" crimes like theft or adultery,
or big crimes like rejection of God.
Three Stages Of Spiritual Development Of Soul Age
Nafsul Ammara: The Passionate Soul
"I do not absolve myself. Lo the (human) soul is prone to evil, save
that whenever my Lord has mercy. Lo, my Lord is forgiving; merciful".
This soul inclines toward sensual pleasure, passion and self gratification,
anger, envy, greed, and conceit. Its concerns are pleasures of body,
gratification of physical appetite, and ego. In a hadith we are told, "Your
most - ardent - enemy is your evil self which resides within your body". (Bukhari)
If this evil soul is not checked, it will lead to unusual stress and its
Nafsul Lawammah: The Reproaching Soul
"Nay, I swear by the reproaching soul" (Qur'an 75:1)
This soul is conscious and full aware of evil, resists it, asks for God's grace
and pardon, repents and tries to amend and hopes to achieve salvation.
"And (there are) others who have acknowledged their faults. They mix a
righteous action with another that was bad. It may be that Allah will relent
toward them. Lo Allah is relenting, merciful". (Qur'an 9:102)
"There are two impulses within us. One, spirit, which calls towards good
and confirms the truth. He who feels this impulse should know that it comes from
Allah. Another impulse comes from our enemy (devil), which leads to doubt and
untruth and encourages evil. He who feels this should seek refuge in Allah from
the accursed devil" (Hadith).
This soul warns people of their vain desire, guides and opens the door to virtue
and righteousness. It is a positive step in spiritual growth.
Nafsul Mutma 'innah: The Satisfied Soul
"O (you) soul in (complete) rest and satisfaction. Come back to your Lord,
well pleased (yourself) and well pleasing unto Him. Enter you then among My
devotees, enter you in My heaven". (Qur'an 89-27-30)
This is the highest state of spiritual development. A satisfied soul is in the
state of bliss, content and peace. The soul is at peace because it knows that in spite
of its failures in this world, it will return to God. Purified of tension, it
emerges triumphant from the struggle and resides in peace and bliss.
What Should We Do In Panic And Despair?
In panic situations non-believers behave differently from believers. They have
no one to turn to, to ask for mercy and forgiveness, they know and believe not
in any life other then this worldly life, over which they have no control.
Naturally they get more depressed which in turn leads them to even more wrong
doing. If they were used to casual drinking, after drinking, they will
increase their consumption of alcohol and end up as alcoholics or habitual
In a state of depression a believer, on the other hand, is advised to do the
Increase Dhikr (remembrance of God).
"He guides to Himself those who turn to Him in penitence - Those who have
believed and whose heart have rest in the remembrance of God. Verify in
the remembrance of God, do hearts find rest". (Qur'an 13:27-28)
Be constant in their prayers.
"O you who believe, seek help with steadfastness and prayer. For God is
with those who are steadfast". (Qur'an 2:153)
Pray to God for Forgiveness.
"And I have said: Seek forgiveness from your Lord. Lo He was ever
forgiving". (Qur'an 71:10)
In addition to the above believers are also expected to constantly struggle to
"Surely God does not change the condition in which people are until they
change that which is in themselves". (Qur'an 13:11)
Qur'anic Recitation In Reducing The Stress
"O mankind! There has come to you a direction from you Lord, and a healing
for (the disease in your) heart, and for those who believe a guidance, and
mercy. (Qur'an 10:57)
The echo of sound has a medical effect, and is now widely utilized. The
recitation of Qur'an or listening to the same has a wholesome effect on the
body, the heart and the mind. It is said that the letter 'alif' echoes to the
heart and latter 'ya' echoes in the pineal gland in the brain. Dr. Ahmed El Kadi
of Akbar Clinic, at Panama City, Florida, conducted and has published the
effects of listening to the Qur'anic recitation on physiological parameters i.e.
the heart rate, the blood pressure and the muscle tension and reported
improvement in all, irrespective of whether the listener is a Muslim or a non-
Muslim, Arab or non-Arab.2 Obviously it can postulated that those who can
understand and enjoy the recitation, with a belief in it as word of God, will
get maximum benefit.
Prophet Muhammad's Prayer During Stress
All the prophets, being human beings, had to undergo tests and trials which
resulted in temporary stress. They constantly remembered God and received peace
through His remembrance. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), for example, himself used
and advised his followers to use the following D'ua (prayer) in times of
"Allah is sufficient for us, and He is an excellent guardian, and we
repose our trust in Allah."
"Surely we belong to Allah and to Him shell we return. O Allah, I
beseech you for the reward of my hardship. Reward me, and compensate me for
it with something good."
Athar is a Clinical Associate Professor
at Indiana University. He has written and published over 110 articles on Islam,
authored "Peace Through Submission" and edited "Islamic
Perspective in Medicine". He is a frequent speaker at many Muslim
institutions, mosques, universities and churches all over the USA.
- The above article was first published in Hamdard Medicus, Volume XII, No. 4, Winter 1989
- For more details, please refer to Dr. Ahmed El-Kadi's article on this subject
in this book. Islamic Perspectives in Medicine (pages 135 -140 )