How to beat sadness

Last week I told you that Allahﷻ prohibited sadness. That sounds unreasonable and you may say, ‘I don’t want to feel sad. But I do. So, why is sadness prohibited?’ We are conditioned to see emotions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. The reality is that emotions are value neutral. They are neither positive nor negative. But what we do with emotion can make it positive or negative. So, while we don’t have control over the emotion, we have total control over what we choose to do thereafter. For example, people say, ‘Don’t get angry.’ That is as unreasonable as saying, ‘Don’t feel hungry or thirsty.’ In Ramadan we feel hungry and thirsty, but we choose to ignore it to please Allahﷻ. We may feel angry with someone, but we choose to control our anger for the same reason. Someone may come to us with gossip, or we may have the urge to backbite someone, but we stop ourselves because backbiting is destructive and like all destructive things, is Haraam. In the case of sadness and grief, to feel it shows that we are human and that our hearts are alive. But to allow ourselves to get bogged down in it is our choice. We can equally easily choose to break out of it.

For example, upon facing bereavement, we can either fall into depression or despair. Or we can choose to be grateful to Allahﷻ for having granted us the company of that friend for the duration that we were together. We can recall and relive the beautiful memories of our time together and pray for them and give charity to benefit them. If we lose our job, we can choose to see it as an opportunity to become entrepreneurs which most people in jobs declare to be their aspirational goal but do nothing to achieve it, until one day they find themselves looking at their office building without their passkey. If we face a financial loss or lose a relationship which is far more serious than financial loss, we can choose to analyze what went wrong and learn lessons from it to prevent it happening a second time. In all these cases and more, we will feel sad, but what we choose to do with that will spell the difference between happiness and gaining wisdom or wasting a life opportunity.

Sadness is prohibited for two other reasons. When our sadness turns morbid and is more than is normal in a situation, it means that we have not recognized the truth of the matter. And that truth is what Allahﷻ told us:

مَا عِندَكُمْ يَنفَدُ وَمَا عِندَ ٱللَّهِ بَاقٍ وَلَنَجْزِيَنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ صَبَرُوٓا۟ أَجْرَهُم بِأَحْسَنِ مَا كَانُوا۟ يَعْمَلُونَ

Nahl 16: 96    Whatever you have will end, but whatever Allah has is everlasting. And We will certainly reward the steadfast according to the best of their deeds.

How can you grieve or regret losing something you didn’t own in the first place? It was not yours. So, how can you say that you lost it? You had been given that person or situation or experience or thing in trust as a gift temporarily. When that period ended, it went back to its real owner, Allahﷻ, who is also our owner and to whom we will also return. When we remember this, loss turns to gain and sadness to gratitude. We become thankful for what we’d had, instead of feeling sad for what we think we lost.

The second bigger problem with prolonged sadness is that it takes away the desire to go forward in life. If you allow yourself to fall into that trap, you become morose, withdrawn and depressed. This is unique to sadness. With other emotions which are considered negative, it doesn’t happen. Anger can energize you to solve a problem or to ensure that a criminal is punished. Fear is a universal motivator to greater effort and in the right dose, it brings the world around you, alive. I recall with great happiness my wanderings in Indian and South American jungles, home to tigers, leopards, bears, elephants, jaguars, anacondas, and other highly dangerous animals. But being in the forest always made me feel more alive, aware, and appreciate my surroundings and gave me tremendous confidence in my own ability to survive. As you can see, I did. The presence of danger is a great motivator because your life is at stake. You will never have that feeling when you look at the same animals in a zoo. Fear also motivates those who compete in extreme sports or even in polo or steeplechases. There is real danger of serious injury, even death. But it motivates you to develop expertise and win.

This is what motivates entrepreneurs to take risks. It is the possibility of loss which paradoxically motivates a person to put himself in a situation where it may become real. It is a race against odds which is so heady and exciting. Ask anyone who is about to start a very difficult and potentially life-threatening climb up a mountain if he feels any fear. He does. But that not only motivates him but keeps him safe. Those who have no fear, die.

This will suffice to show how different so-called negative emotions have positive effects. The exception is sadness. Sadness, if you allow it, drags you down into a spiral of anxiety, depression and despair. If you read the Seerah you can see places where Rasoolullahﷺ was sad. But he was never depressed, never despaired. He always had hope in Allahﷻ’s Mercy and looked forward to Allahﷻ’s help which always came. We must remember that Allahﷻ promised to help and His promise is always true. The timing of the help is according to Allahﷻ’s knowledge which is superior to ours. That is why we must do our best and trust Allahﷻ to do the rest. This is where Ta’alluq Ma’Allahﷻ, our relationship with Allahﷻ is so critical. You can’t trust someone you don’t know or only know superficially. In the case of Allahﷻ, to know is to obey. That is Taqwa. And Tawakkul is its reward. When we fear only the displeasure of Allahﷻ, then Allahﷻ removes the fear of everyone and everything else from our hearts and replaces it with faith.

The finest example of this sequence of Sabr and Tawakkul is in the actions of Rasoolullahﷺ before the Battle of Badr. A battle which was potentially a differentiator between survival of the nascent Muslim community and its annihilation. Rasoolullahﷺ made all preparations for the battle with the limited resources he had. Then he stood in Salah and begged Allahﷻ for His help. He was not complacent about preparing his material resources to face the lethal conflict. He didn’t rely simply on prayer. Neither did he allow his material preparations to make him feel overconfident. He put his situation before Allahﷻ, who knows and can see. But it is the position of the Abd to beg his Rabb and so he did. The rest is history and Badr became the foundation of success. Sabr, which is translated as ‘patience’ is a concept which is sometimes misunderstood to mean to simply wait for things to happen. Sabr is the opposite of that. To have Sabr, indeed its proof, is to do your best in a situation and then to trust Allahﷻ for the results.

Tests are not unusual. Allahﷻ promised to test us:

أَمْ حَسِبْتُمْ أَن تَدْخُلُوا۟ ٱلْجَنَّةَ وَلَمَّا يَأْتِكُم مَّثَلُ ٱلَّذِينَ خَلَوْا۟ مِن قَبْلِكُم مَّسَّتْهُمُ ٱلْبَأْسَآءُ وَٱلضَّرَّآءُ وَزُلْزِلُوا۟ حَتَّىٰ يَقُولَ ٱلرَّسُولُ وَٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ مَعَهُۥ مَتَىٰ نَصْرُ ٱللَّهِ أَلَآ إِنَّ نَصْرَ ٱللَّهِ قَرِيبٌ

Baqara 2: 214    Do you think you will be admitted into Jannah without being tested like those before you? They were afflicted with suffering and adversity and were so ˹violently˺ shaken that ˹even˺ the Messenger and the believers with him cried out, When will Allahs help come? Indeed, Allahs help is ˹always˺ near.

Narrated Khabbab bin Al-Arat (R), “We complained to Rasoolullah  (about the persecution inflicted on us) while he was sitting in the shade of the Ka`ba, leaning over his Burd (i.e. covering sheet). We said to him, “Would you seek help for us? Would you pray to Allah for us?” He said, “Among the nations before yours a (believing) man would be put in a ditch that was dug for him, and a saw would be put over his head and he would be cut into two pieces; yet that (torture) would not make him give up his religion. His body would be combed with iron combs that would remove his flesh from the bones and nerves, yet that would not make him abandon his religion. By Allah, this religion (Islam) will prevail till a traveler from Sana (in Yemen) to Hadrarmaut will fear none but Allah, or a wolf as regards his sheep, but you (people) are hasty.

Khabbab bin Al-Arat (R) was the Sahabi who was a beautiful Qari of the Qur’an whose recitation Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) heard and accepted Islam. We understand from this that tests, difficulties, and trails are a part of life. Allahﷻ comforted us and taught us how to deal with difficulties. He said:

إِلَّا تَنصُرُوهُ فَقَدْ نَصَرَهُ ٱللَّهُ إِذْ أَخْرَجَهُ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا۟ ثَانِىَ ٱثْنَيْنِ إِذْ هُمَا فِى ٱلْغَارِ إِذْ يَقُولُ لِصَـٰحِبِهِۦ لَا تَحْزَنْ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ مَعَنَا فَأَنزَلَ ٱللَّهُ سَكِينَتَهُۥ عَلَيْهِ وَأَيَّدَهُۥ بِجُنُودٍ لَّمْ تَرَوْهَا وَجَعَلَ كَلِمَةَ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا۟ ٱلسُّفْلَىٰ وَكَلِمَةُ ٱللَّهِ هِىَ ٱلْعُلْيَا وَٱللَّهُ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ

Tawba 9: 40    ˹It does not matter˺ if you ˹believers˺ do not support him, for Allah did in fact support him when the disbelievers drove him out ˹of Mecca˺ and he was only one of two. While they both were in the cave, he reassured his companion, “Do not worry, for Allah is certainly with us.” So Allah sent down His serenity upon the Prophet, and  supported him with forces you ˹believers˺ did not see, and made the word of the disbelievers lowest, while the Word of Allah is supreme. And Allah is Almighty, All-Wise.

In this Ayah Allahﷻ referred to the time when Rasoolullahﷺ and Abu Bakr Siddique (R) were together in Ghar Thawr being pursued by the enemy. The Quraysh came right up to the mouth of the cave such that Abu Bakr (R) could see their feet. He said, ‘Ya Rasoolullahﷺ, if they only look down, they will see us.’ Rasoolullahﷺ replied, ‘La tahzan, InnaAllaha ma’ana – have no (fear) sadness. Truly Allahﷻ is with us.’ Abu Bakr (R) was content. The rest is history. Allahﷻ delivered them safely to Madina and the world changed.

Many years later during the Khilafa of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) and the wars of Riddah, people asked him how he could be so calm and serene when literally the survival of Islam was at stake. He said, ‘After that night in Ghar Thawr, I have never been afraid or sad.’ The lesson we learn is that when faced with loss or the fear of loss, we do what is most natural and logical, turn to the Only One who can help and who is not affected by that situation.