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Beware of Anger the Hunting Dog

Beware of Anger the Hunting Dog

Though naturally passionate and even rebellious, I was never really an angry person. In fact, I tended more toward allowing people to bully me, as I hate conflict and believed allowing injustice was the higher path than defending myself.

The first time I recall ever experiencing real, blinding rage, I was around 25 years old and I was living in rural Egypt as the second wife of an imam. Religious as he seemed outside, he was violating both our rights and neglecting and abusing us both in turn. No matter how much we sought people to intervene for us, he lacked the character necessary to be fair and just.

After a long string of broken promises and open lies, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I was seven months pregnant with my daughter, it was hot in mid April, and he was three hours late, again. We had no food in the house and no money to get food, nor anyone to help us, and this was the second time that week.

When he finally came home and tried to justify having spent the last three hours at a family party with his other wife, it was the last straw. I lost all semblance of control, and rage swept over me like a river.

I walked calmly into the kitchen, my arms and hands tingling with white hot hatred for this man and all the people who conspired with him to trap me in that misery. In a flash, I grabbed the metal dish hanger off the wall and dashed all the dishes onto the floor, screaming and crying. I felt helpless and out of control. And my children witnessed the entire event.

It was more than glass that was broken by the end of that day. In hindsight, however, I have come to feel both shame and pity as regards the woman I was then. I had a mistaken belief that my anger was the problem, when in fact, my anger was a thin veneer on top of years of deep sadness, oppression, feelings of unworthiness, and an overwhelming fear.

The True Enemy

Contrary to popular sentiment, anger is not the bad guy. Like all emotions, anger is the body’s way of getting our attention when we feel threatened or endangered, both literally and hypothetically. Trying to rid ourselves of anger is a losing game, not the least of which because of the fact that anger cannot be destroyed.

We’ve all heard the ahadith from Prophet Muhammad on how a strong man controls his anger, as well as his admonitions to just avoid getting angry at all. True as it is, we suggest, however, that the issue of anger is far deeper than just avoidance. We know, as a matter of fact, that Prophet Muhammad himself was angry sometimes, most often when he saw injustice being committed.

In his book “The Forty Foundations of Religion”, Imam Al-Ghazali says about anger:

“Breaking the power of anger is among the most important aspects of religion…By “breaking it”, I do not intend “removing it”, for indeed its root does not disappear…” (Book 3, The 3rd Foundation)

One cannot defeat an enemy without knowing full well the identity of that enemy. Anger is not our enemy, any more than sadness, happiness, or love are enemies to us. Anger is merely a tool at our disposal, and like any tool it can be used mindfully or mindlessly. The true enemy is our inability to accept our reality and embrace all the parts of ourselves so that we may move forward into change, whole human beings.

Learning to Respect Anger

In a commentary on Imam Al-Ghazali’s aforementioned book, the author says, “Anger is like a hunting dog that does not oppose the hunter who trained it. Anger is led, like a hunting dog, by the intellect and sacred law, abiding by their guidance. This is only possible after a great deal of spiritual struggle against the self and becoming habituated to forbearance and resisting those things that cause anger.” [1]

Taken in this light, we can see that our anger serves us, so long as we do not allow our anger to control us.

Al-Ghazali cautioned, however, against trying to remove anger from oneself entirely: “…if it disappears, it is necessary to obtain it, because it is…a preventer of bad deeds, and a multiplier of good deeds.” There are many situations in life which call for anger, including righting a wrong committed, ensuring justice is delivered in a court of law, and protecting the rights of orphans and widows, to name a few.

There are some instances, however, where anger must simply be ignored, and in these instances, responding to one’s anger will only make matters worse. The correct response, according to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is to seek refuge in Allah from Shaytan for Shaytan loves to stoke the fire of anger and to make wudu. He also said we should sit down if we feel angry while standing, and lie down if we still feel angry while sitting. (Sunan Abi Dawud 4782)

Anger, however, does serve a purpose in some circumstances, but before one can determine if showing one’s anger is beneficial to the matter at hand, one must look under the anger at the deeper emotions.

What Lies Beneath

When we pull back the layers of anger, we will find that there are numerous other feelings just lying in wait, including guilt, shame, hurt, loss, longing, hunger, helplessness, anxiety, unworthiness, and emptiness.

Ask yourself: “Am I angry because I’m actually afraid?” Or maybe you’re angry because you feel devastated? Maybe you feel angry because you feel dishonored or ashamed of yourself.

In these circumstances, it is your nafs pushing you to respond. Aside from calmly expressing your feelings, the best reaction is no reaction at all, except the aforementioned recommendations of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Jalaladdin Rumi said, “ When you see the face of anger, look behind it and you will see the face of pride. Bring anger and pride under your feet, turn them into a ladder and climb higher. There is no peace until you become their master. Let go of anger, it may taste sweet but it kills. Don’t become its victim. You need humility to climb to freedom.” [2]

However, if your anger is coming from a place of worry for the well-being of another who is oppressed, or the concern for your own valid rights (your pride is not a right), there are ways to train yourself to express your anger in a healthy manner.

Controlling and using anger to our advantage

There are two main routes to controlling one’s anger: knowledge and action.

First and foremost, we must understand that under all our emotions, far below the surface of the anger lies denial of the qadr (destiny) of Allah. Al-Ghazali says:

“There is no cause for your anger except the denial that a thing occurs by the will of Allah rather than by your own will…the anger of Allah upon you is greater than your own anger, and the grace of Allah is greater…”

Having come to terms with the deepest root cause of our anger, the next step is action, both for the acute anger at hand the chronic underlying issue. First, as stated previously, sit down or lie down, seek refuge in Allah (say “authu billahi min ashshaytan arrajeem”), and make wudu. When you are in a clear state of mind to consider better alternatives to acting in anger, you can more fully consider the consequences of your actions.

Dealing with chronic anger, however, requires a life more devoted to restraint in general. This can be obtained through frequent sunnah fasting, and limiting one’s intake of too much food, too much leisure, and too much halal sexual pleasure. Too much of any good thing is bad.

There are times, however, when one’s anger become so powerful, and the emotions underneath so muddled, that we need help from an outside source , and it is our responsibility to seek that help.

Allah gave us a broad range of emotions so that we could experience life on this earth to its full potential, both the pleasure and the pain, the sadness and the joy. Let us not make one of those emotions a scapegoat so that we do not allow ourselves the full depth of experience Allah has created us to feel.

Let sadness wash over you, as sadness does. Allow joy to warm you and leave you peacefully. Accept grief and the gifts it brings to your life. Anger is the hard shell of the egg that is your deeper, connected self. Crack that shell and life becomes vivid in all its colors and forms.

References:

[1] Spevack, Aaron Ghazali on the Principles of Islamic Spirituality: Selections from the Forty Foundations of Religion pg. 132

[2] “Ghazal (Ode) 2197”
Translation by Azima Melita Kolin and Maryam Mafi in “Rumi: Hidden Music”
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2001


About Kaighla Um Dayo

Kaighla Um Dayo is one of the authors of "The New Muslim's Field Guide", expected to be published in Feb. 2018. She is also a former Ask About Islam editor. She is also a regular contributor at islamwich.com, where she ruminates on life as a Muslim American. Her favorite things are meditation, painting, drinking tea, and being outside in nature.

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