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Mental health conditions are found in every era and society, in both the good times and the bad. Yet we yearn to explain this away by linking our environment to our toils. Those with much strain their eyes to those with more in times of peace and plenty. In times of war, peace is seen as the panacea for distress.
Our past is also pointed to in explaining our present. Our yesterday determines our mental state today. The rigidity of this belief both destroys hope of positive change and normalises that we should rail against others and ourselves. Behaviour – whether counterproductive and inadvertently self-harming or harming others – is reduced to a medical condition.
Another belief clouding our path is relying too heavily on our own compass on what is right or wrong in terms of our inter-personal relations. This is done without realising that we may have been unduly shaped by early experiences in a way that leads to coping in a narrow way, which may not be helpful in all situations.
Where, then, do we find the best guidance? Our peers may be shaped by our society’s conventional wisdoms. Our consciousness – absorbing social media, traditional media and organised education – may similarly be prone to bias.
Where is the rock in the sea for us to hold onto?
Good character can today appear old fashioned or, worse, judgmental. Let us begin by pondering over what good characteristics are and what we might strive toward in order to adopt good into our own character.
When the term ‘personality disorders’ is carelessly applied, it can be seen as judgemental. Indeed, there are those who claim that none exist and that they are constructs. The labelling of personality disorders is useful in describing a common grouping of characteristics that are maladaptive. Simply put, whilst they may be seen as having followed difficult experiences and be an adaptation to them, they result in ways of functioning that harm ourselves and sometimes others.
Examples include emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD) and narcissistic disorder. EUPD includes a heightened fear of being abandoned, yet is characterised by behaviour that pushes people away. Narcissistic disorder is marked by extreme self-confidence yet belied by a fragile self-image sensitive to the slightest criticism.
It may well be that early trauma associated with EUPD, as well as difficult experiences with role models, may be associated with many personality disorders. However, that does not determine our future absolutely or close the door to change if indeed we want to change.
The focus here is on deliberately looking at ourselves, as it easy to point out the supposed faults of others. In recognising our own shortcomings first and trying to improve them, we may improve our judgement of ourselves and others.
Reading about personality disorders in detail reveals examples of how certain people may act for a variety of reasons. However, this only provides us with information on how we would rather not be.
Where are the examples of noble characters of how we wish to be? Recognising tests in the good and the bad, encouraging patience in adversity, repentance when erring, and humility in success?
Those who believe in One God can pray to Him to bring them from the darkness into the light, but does He not also show us the steps to take? Does He not serve as a rock in the sea for us to hold onto? Does He not give us examples in those who came before us?
The perseverance and patience of Ayyūb; the repentance of Yūnus; the courage of Mūsa in facing the Pharaoh; the strength and purity of Maryam; the steadfastness against temptation of Yūsuf; the stories of Nūh, Ibrāhīm, and the great character of Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) – peace and blessings be upon them all.
It was said of Bilal (radiy Allāhu ‘anhu), in regard to his relationship with Abu Bakr, that “our noble man has freed our noble man”. This is a whimsical play on words, as one frees slaves rather than noble men. Abu Bakr was of the tribe of Quraysh and so was of the nobility of Arabian society. Bilal was a slave before he was freed. Yet the Muslims saw nobility as not a factor of birth or status, but of faith and character. Islam – submission to the will of Allāh – and true belief even above the initial submission led to a nobility of spirit and behaviour. It is a recognition of one’s own strengths and weaknesses and building upon the good and going to war against one’s flaws. Both Abu Bakr and Bilal were free and noble men.
No test, both of good and bad, is given to us but that our souls are able to bear it. The final verse of Sūrah Al-Baqarah declares this as a statement of truth and then reiterates it as a prayer we should make.
Let us take whatever we are today as a beginning. Let us not allow our yesterday to dictate us today or tomorrow. Let us acknowledge our past in order to understand how to chart where we wish to be tomorrow. Let us seek help in order to help us to better follow the Straight Path bestowed upon us. Surely, this is the path to success in this world and the next – the path to God consciousness. May the character that results turn even the pain of our yesterday into that which keeps our feet on the Straight Path tomorrow.
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I think that once people get over the initial shock of realising that people close to them are ‘maladaptive’, are trying to harm them in some way and that they need to wake up and watch their back, the inevitable question arises which is how should we deal with them? Not everyone can leave a job because of a harmful colleague/boss as they might not be able to find another suitable job. Not everyone can leave a marriage because of an abusive spouse as doing so may bring more harm to others such as the children, elderly in laws and even the abusive spouse who doesn’t understand what’s good for them. If it’s a relative with whom you have ‘ties of the womb’ then breaking contact with them completely is not acceptable according to our religion.
The problem is that there is far too little information available on personality disorders from an Islamic perspective. How much excuse does Islam give to maladaptive people who had deeply flawed childhoods? What if they are maladaptive even though their upbringing was great? How much control do they have over their actions? How self-aware are they? Does Allah want us to distance ourselves from them or to keep contact with them? If we remain in contact then how can we do so without allowing them to make us ill and without ‘enabling’ their destructive behaviour?
I believe that there is a wealth of knowledge in the Qur’an through examples like those of the brothers of Yusuf, Pharoah and Qabil but, in the English language at least, MOST scholars are not helping us to understand what Allah is telling us through their examples. This knowledge along with knowledge about personality disorders wouldn’t “only provide us with information on how we would rather not be” but rather, it would help us to understand these people better, and along with the DETAILED responses of those mentioned in the Qur’an who had to deal with them, we could understand better what our response should be.
I’ve said this before but I feel that Muslim scholars and psychologists need to work together to get a comprehensive picture of personality disorders. One side understand better issues like diseases of the heart, sincerity, hypocrisy, accountability as well as ayahs of the Qur’an in which Allah Ta’ala tells us about how He puts a seal upon people’s hearing and hearts as well as a veil over their vision (e.g. Qur’an 45:23). On the other hand, the other side have the language that can describe the maladaptive behaviour so that those who are at the receiving end of it can verbalise what it looks like. Without this coming together of the two fields of expertise, personally, I wouldn’t feel confident to approach either of them.
Assalam aleikum sister,
Using the term ‘maladaptive’ in such a general sense, is rather relative. In terms of overlooking and making allowances, if a person is normally of good character, and then behaves unexpectedly then we need to look at the circumstances. Is that person under some form of pressure etc, life is a series of ups and downs.
In the talk, the brother talked about adopting good characteristics based on the elevated characteristics of the Messengers etc. And this applies to all of us, to strive for a good character, nothing is heavier on the scales on the Day of Qiyyamah. If we applied this advice, it would help remove many common problems we see today such as arrogance, ignorant speech, jealousy, wishing people harm etc.
It’s not appropriate for an unqualified person to be labelling another person as having this personality disorder, or that disorder. Just like we wouldn’t diagnose a physical medical issues.
Regarding diseases of the heart, Ibn Qayyim rahimhullah has wrote extensively on matters of the heart, in the spiritual sense, likewise Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Rajab.
You may find this link useful In’sha’Allah.
kalamullah.com in the heart and soul section have many excellent free books in English to download on this subject.
Wa alaykum assalaam sister. Jazaak Allahu khair for your advice and for taking the time to respond.
Dr Zeyn said,
“When the term ‘personality disorders’ is carelessly applied, it can be seen as judgemental. Indeed, there are those who claim that none exist and that they are constructs. The labelling of personality disorders is useful in describing a common grouping of characteristics that are maladaptive. Simply put, whilst they may be seen as having followed difficult experiences and be an adaptation to them, they result in ways of functioning that harm ourselves and sometimes others.”
What you’re describing in your first paragraph is what I think he means by his first sentence about when we carelessly apply the term. Also, firstly, the doctors words show that maladaptive people actually exist and that they have a way of functioning that harms themselves and others. Most people when they approach scholars to help resolve conflicts don’t come with terminology like maladaptive, narcissistic, bi-polar and EUPD etc. What they do come with is a series of incidents and experiences which a ‘psychologist’ may recognise as “a common grouping of characteristics that are maladaptive.” Secondly, my fear is that when Muslims do approach scholars, that they will fail to recognise the signs and patterns that show that they are not dealing with the people that you described in your first paragraph, but are instead, indeed, dealing with the maladaptive types.
I understand what you mean, that we shouldn’t see every conflict as being caused by maladaptive behaviour, especially when we are not qualified to make such a judgement anyway, but by the same token, we shouldn’t dismiss certain conflicts that stick out in our lives, as not being due to maladaptive behaviour, when they could be.
We don’t have a TV in our home and we never have but I know that recently there has been a ‘coercive control’ storyline in Coronation Street, which many people can relate to. The ‘villain’ in the soap can, in general terms, be described as maladaptive. My worry is that, just like with most people in the ‘victim’s’ life, scholars will be unable to pick up on this sort of maladaptive behaviour. If they can’t diagnose what the problem is then they can’t give us the correct solutions and, as practising Muslims, we want solutions from scholars not psychologists as they may have underlying beliefs from western psychology that contradict our Islamic understanding of ‘behaviour and accountability’ as well as ‘rights and responsibilities’.
If we are to make ourselves vulnerable enough to approach scholars with our conflicts then we need to feel reassured that our concerns will be listened to, understood and validated if there is evidence to that effect, and that they won’t mistakenly and with devastating consequences invalidate our lived experiences.
Assalamu alaykum. Jazakullahukhair for you all at Islam21C for addressing these topics. Masha’Allah much needed and really inspiring that you are not afraid of taboo subjects Alhumdolilah.
I often feel that there is way too much information available, everything is accessible.
From an Islamic point of view, from personal experience teaching Islamic studies, I find consistently, that students will quote some daleel they find online, which on the surface may look applicable, but in the correct context, it rarely applies. It is information, without understanding, just a manifestation of the copy, cut and paste environment we are living in. It’s very easy to cut and paste, it takes a bit more effort to refer to books, to look at a subject in-depth, to do your research. But in this internet age, everyone is an expert at the click of a button!
And the same applies to labelling oneself or other people, based on some disorder, we may have very briefly read up on. For example, a friend went through divorce recently, which is not emotionally easy, our behaviour may not be consistent or could even be erratic. Based on some things, that may have got said, the sister started questioning whether she may have some form of autism, is she on the spectrum, or perhaps bi-polar etc. Really? Or perhaps we are just human beings, with vulnerabilities and emotions. These labels are thrown around way too easily, maybe that the person is struggling at some point in their life?
Reminds me of the old saying ‘a little information can be dangerous thing’.
Let’s just take a step back and make allowances for people, be kind, be constructive and know your limits. There are mental health professionals, who are adequately trained.
And regarding Islamic knowledge, Ali RA was asked what is more valuable wealth or Islamic knowledge? He replied knowledge, as you have to guard your wealth, whereas when the tests come, your knowledge will stand and guard you.