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How You Can Use Islamic Practices for Emotional Regulation

by in Lifestyle on 7th March, 2023

Have you ever been absolutely enraged with someone, and they volunteer a homicide-inducing suggestion such as ‘would you just calm down?’

I can only imagine what your reaction must have been like. You’re probably reliving it right now and laughing that crazy laugh that suggests wa’eed, a promise of retaliation. This interaction is a perfect example of what to avoid when a nervous system is dysregulated: tell it what to do. The eye-opening fact I came to learn a bit too late in life is that the state of your body creates your thoughts, rather than the other way around. 

This means that an angry body will only create angry thoughts, whereas calm(er) thoughts will not make your body less angry. Instead, we should care for the body first, release the anger or anxiety or shame or whatever you’re holding, and calmer thoughts will follow automatically. The good news is we already do many practices that are considered somatic, simply because we follow the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet

This article aims to highlight many of the already existing benefits in some of the practices we already do. I continue an exploration into the relationship between dhikr and somatic practices). It represents a process of translation between parts of myself seemingly different yet never contradictory. 

Here are five more instances where somatic therapy and Dhikr are intertwined:

Cultivating Wonder – Subhan Allah

A child is fascinated by things he sees for the first time, and we often find ourselves jealous of that lightheartedness. Think about the last time you revelled at something with such wonder that it filled you with joy and you managed to forget that looming deadline for example. With a conscious effort, we can cultivate that sense of wonder again, precisely through the invocation of ‘Subhan Allah’.  

‘Subhan Allah’ allows for a re-enchantment with the world. When we engage in a careful witnessing and paying attention to the little things, beyond the dhahir (apparent), we never fail to discover new meanings and become in awe of God’s creation.

Consider a miracle that has become so commonplace we forget to give its due attention, like a particularly colorful sunset or a cluster of birds moving like one entity.

Beyond the cognitive effort of contemplation (tafakkur) that the invocation of ‘Subhan Allah’ allows, it can be considered as a somatic practice par excellence. If you say out loud the following invocations: Subhan Allah, alhamdulillah, astaghfir Allah, hasbiah Allah, you’ll notice a common feature – all these letters come from the throat. In fact, the letters Haح  & Ha ه & kha خ belong to the classification of ‘throat letters’ ensuring proper pronunciation in the principles of tajwid. These letters engage a constant stimulation of the Vagus Nerve in the throat area, which is similar to gargling – an effective somatic exercise that releases blocked energy in the vocal cords.

Cultivating Gratitude – Alhamdulillah

In the literature of psychotherapy, gratitude is hailed as the most healing practice for the nervous system. It is healing in two main ways: 

  1. It allows us to cognitively shift our perception of a situation, and  this helps us locate opportunities within the same event. 
  2. Similarly, in a somatic sense, the practice of gratitude calms our nervous system and brings it out of the state of fight/flight and into a state of safety. 

This is because we cannot embody two opposite feelings at the same time, which means that we cannot be fearful and also grateful. 

Once we allow gratitude to fill our body and mind, we can easily quieten the chatter of our mind. A perpetual practice of gratitude alters the chemical make-up of our body. So when we practise being grateful often enough, it starts to become our default. Dhikr is an excellent way to achieve this – the more we utter ‘Alhamdulillah’, as we connect each blessing in our life to a bead in our misbaha, the lighter and more peaceful we feel.

Cultivating Trust – Allahu Akbar

There is a fine line between planning to the best of your ability and trusting that Allah’s plan will turn out better than you ever expected. It is often difficult to walk this line without falling to either side, because we are only human. This constant rumination is a symptom of our nervous system being triggered to to take immediate action because it believes it is in danger.

When we worry about the future, we are wasting time and energy in refusing to accept that very little is within our control. Our peace of mind lies precisely in letting go of this illusion of control and trust in Allah’s workings. Through Allahu akbar, we are reminded that God is the greatest and that we are always safe in His hands. Allahu Akbar allows us to rest, knowing that whatever the outcome, it will always be the best case scenario.

Loving-Kindness Mediation – Du’a for Your Enemy 

Growing up, my mother had a strict no gossip policy which she still maintains, something I respect deeply since I experienced first-hand how much it can break the social fabric of a community. Imagine gossip as weaving an invisible web of intricate threads throughout a community, which then becomes impossible to detangle. 

Instead, my mother made it a habit of saying ‘May Allah bless that person’ with a particular tone. It became a shorthand for gossip but also brought the conversation to a halt. 

“Good and evil cannot be equal. [Prophet], repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend,” [Qur’an 41:34]

In a similar vein, I had learned of the loving-kindness mediation which is what advanced monks use to heal their consciousness, a purification of the soul  (tazkiyyet al nafs) of sorts. The idea is simple, yet far from simplistic. 

This type of meditation invites you to think of someone you dislike, who has done you harm, and focus all your energy on wishing them well and sending kindness their way. I tried it, not without difficulty, and I was astounded at the amount of positive energy I was filled with. To do that efficiently, one has to only focus on the good in them and concentrate on finding empathy for their weaknesses and faults. 

I found the parallel between both practices fascinating and the bonus point is that once you make du’a for someone, the angels reply ‘Ameen’ and whisper ‘Likewise to you’ – an absolute win-win. 

‘The supplication of a Muslim for a fellow Muslim in his absence is answered. Whenever one invokes good for his brother, the entrusted angel says, “amen, and likewise to you”.’  [Sahih Muslim]

This practice allows our minds to reframe the situation and shifts it from holding on to bitterness and anger to releasing it with kindness. In this way, it helps us cultivate neuroplasticity by creating new neural pathways, until it becomes our default. 

Ablution Wudu’ – Calming Anger

Our dear Prophet narrated the following hadith:

Anger comes from the devil, the devil was created of fire, and fire is extinguished only with water; so when one of you becomes angry, she should perform ablution.” [Sunan Abu Dawud 4784]  

“If a prompting from Satan should stir you, seek refuge with God: He is the All Hearing and the All Knowing.”  [Qur’an 41:36]

This beautiful hadith suggests a somatic practice long before the theory even existed. Evidence in neuroscience through thermal infrared imaging suggests that anger manifests in high temperatures in the upper body. Anger flushes blood to our face, hands, and chest. 

Performing wudu is a way to shock the body with cold water and decrease its temperature. The number of signals transferred from the body to the mind is greater than the other way around. Therefore, when we show our bodies that we are no longer angry simply by decreasing its temperature, we begin to calm down as a consequence. 

Recently, the lovely Chaplain Sondos, our somatic guru and favorite Dhikr hero, launched an Instagram challenge #100DhikrWalk. In her explanatory video, she started with a great comparison. The idea behind #HotGirlWalk invites us to be out in nature, moving our bodies, getting some fresh air and basically considering our healthy practices as ‘hot’. 

Pursuing a similar end goal, Chaplain Sondos invites us to do the #100DhikrWalk, where our search for physical and mental health can be done through our relationship with Allah – that is we take a walk, and we get healthy all the while silently praying and performing dhikr. Her comparison was an incredibly effective invitation since it incorporated two different dimensions of mental health. First, a somatic practice intended for all of us to consider yourselves worthy and attractive (hot girl walk), one that fulfills the horizontal dimension of our soul in its relationship to our body, our world and others. Second, a spiritual practice fulfilling the vertical dimension of our soul, between us and our beloved (100DhikrWalk). 

Within the same structure of thought, she managed to square two dimensions that can often be contradictory. Without saying it, she communicated the idea that we do not need a blank slate or a total makeover of our lives to be worthy of doing dhikr. Instead, she gave us tacit permission to do a switcheroo whenever possible, and that we can instill dhikr to fit anywhere in our lives and it is always worth it.

What Chaplain Sondos had done brilliantly is bring dhikr to the battle of aesthetics, a battle imposed on all Muslims. Whoever wins the battle of aesthetics, wins the war of narrative.

Suggested Bibliography:

 Chaplain Sondos’ Instagram and conversations! @by_thepen

 Rothman, Abdallah, “What Islam Offers to Modern Self-Help: An Islamic Paradigm of Psychology”, in Productive Muslim. December 31, 2019 

Elwan, Hassan & Umarji, Osman, “The Alchemy of Divine Love: How Our View of God Affects Our Faith and Happiness”, in The Yaqeen Institute, January 11, 2023

Alaa Badr

Alaa Badr

Lulu is an Egyptian researcher based in Florence, Italy. She is interested in contemporary intellectual history and new modes of knowledge production in the MENA region, as a part of her PhD project at the European University Institute. She holds a BA & an MA from SciencesPo Paris in Political Science. She is fascinated by languages and language games and worries that the curse of babel is getting worse.